Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Executive Council of the Episcopal Church Speaks to Vaccination

Most of the world may not have noticed, but the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church met last week. For those who don't know, the Executive Council is charged with carrying forward the decisions and programs of the General Convention between meetings every three years.

And even among those who are aware of the Executive Council, not all are aware that they also pass resolutions. Resolutions of General Convention are the highest-level statements of the positions and programs of the Episcopal Church. However, actions of Executive Council are also important. They address specific actions to carry out General Convention resolutions, and address issues that have come up since General Convention. If you're interested in a summary of all the actions of the most recent Executive Council, you can find them here. And if you're a real Episcopal geek, you can look for actions of Executive Council for the last 40 years or so in the Digital Archives of the Episcopal Church, here. (And thanks to the Episcopal Cafe, where these news stories have been shared.)

One resolve of Council had particular resonance for me, and I reproduce it in full:

Express grave concern and sorrow for the recent rise in easily preventable diseases due to anti-vaccination movements which have harmed thousands of children and adults; condemn the continued and intentional spreading of fraudulent research that suggested vaccines might cause harm; recognize no claim of theological or religious exemption from vaccination for our members and reiterates the spirit of General Convention policies that Episcopalians should seek the counsel of experienced medical professionals, scientific research and epidemiological evidence; call on the Office of Government Relations to advocate to the United States government for stronger vaccination mandates informed by epidemiological evidence and scientific research; urge all religious leaders to support evidence-based measures that ensure the strongest protections for our communities; ask congregations and dioceses to partner with medical professionals to counter false information, and to become educated about programs in their communities that can provide vaccinations and immunizations at reduced or no cost to those in need (MB011).

Some of my readers may know that one of my responsibilities in my last position (happily, one I could share with colleagues), was to review requests for exemption on religious grounds from mandatory flu vaccination. It was an interesting process, and perhaps I'll write more another time.

However, one matter I brought to that process was a request I'd received years earlier. I had a call from a priest, a rector in Virginia. She needed some help. She had a parishioner, a mother, who was terrified because of the misinformation, then already rampant, about vaccinations for children and autism. The parish priest wanted to ask the hospital chaplain whether I knew of any support for exemption in the Episcopal Church. I took some time to look into the Digital Archives myself (I am a geek), and found confirmation of what I already thought. General Convention had not spoken specifically about vaccines, but had a long history of supporting receiving modern medical care. Indeed, I suggested to the priest that, if anything, most would lean on that verse in Ecclesiasticus,"The Lord created medicines out of the earth, and the sensible will not despise them." (38:4) I suggested that the priest accompany the mother and children to the pediatrician to help the mother hear clearly what the doctor had to say, and to support her in her anxiety.

There are a few - a very few - religious traditions that reject vaccinations, even if they don't reject all health care. There are more folks who take a moral position (sometimes expressed in religious language, but often not; and in either case often poorly) against vaccinations as a violation of one's person. In those latter cases, it is always in individualistic choice, rejecting the concept of accepting a vaccine to love neighbor as self, by accepting vaccination to protect those who medically cannot. In taking this position, the Executive Council is certainly standing on sound science. What is more important, though, is that they are standing on sound faith: the expectation that Episcopalians can accept vaccination, not only to protect themselves, but also to protect their neighbors.

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